The tiny rail station at Paestum was deserted.
Located a few miles outside of town, the building is not much more than a hut in a pasture.
No taxis or buses waited outside to transfer me to my hotel. The ticket office was closed. The few passengers who disembarked along with me seemed to evaporate into the dusk. No one around to ask for help.
Night was approaching and, with it, the cold. I stood outside the station with my two carry-on bags, looking helplessly down the empty road in the direction of town.
I was stranded.
The day had already been a long one, involving multiple connections–a shuttle bus within Positano, a regional bus to Amalfi, another bus to Salerno and a train to Paestum. I made the mistake of assuming ground transportation would be available.
I had traveled to Paestum to see its ancient ruins, especially its three Greek temples, dating from 600 to 450 BCE. Paestum is a bit off the beaten track and its temples are in excellent condition, given their age. But, at the moment, I wasn’t thinking about the ruins.
Somewhere out there in the dark was a hotel room waiting for me. I considered my options. Walking the few miles into town pulling the roller bag on the two-lane rural road was doable but possibly dangerous. I checked Uber and found nothing. I was about to call the hotel when I spotted a gravel trail leading, not to town, but to the archaeological site.
A mile down the trail and I was at the gate of the ancient city of Paestum. It was closed for the day. However, the supporting restaurants and shops outside the gate were doing business. I asked at the nearest souvenir stand if taxis were available. The owner spoke Italian only, but somehow I managed to communicate my dilemma.
He gestured to another man, possibly his son, who beckoned me to follow. I took it to mean he was going to drive me to the hotel. Sort of an unlicensed Uber arrangement. We climbed into an old Fiat, dented and full of debris. During the ride, he proudly pointed out some of the town’s landmarks. (At least I think that’s what he was doing. I really had no idea. I kept saying, “Si, si, si,” and hoping I wasn’t being kidnapped.)
I was greatly relieved to arrive at the hotel. He didn’t seem to have any idea when I asked how much I owed him for the ride. Feeling generous, I pulled nine euros from my pocket. He was thrilled, like winning-the-lottery thrilled, which suggests I overpaid. A small fortune to him perhaps, but I didn’t care. He saved me from sleeping at the train station.
He clutched my hand tightly when we shook, grasping it in both of his. I have no idea what he said but I think we are now brothers.
And then things got strange.
As a solo traveler, I try to keep my lodging costs low, staying in B&Bs and using Airbnb. There aren’t many overnight options in Paestum and, six months ago when I booked, perhaps there weren’t many availabilities. I don’t remember.
Anyway, when the gypsy cab dropped me off, I found myself in a five-star resort hotel for a little over one-hundred dollars per night.
Sprawling and glitzy. Beautiful rooms, panoramic views of the sea, pools, fountains, sundecks, banquet facilities, a private beach and so on. And as I walked around, exploring the place, it slowly dawned on me–I was the only guest.
The lobby, the halls, the bar, the pool–all empty. The manager and the bartender appeared to be the only staff on duty.
Signage indicated the restaurant would open for dinner at 7:30 p.m., as is common in Italy. I didn’t want to search around town after dark, so I arrived on the dot. No one there.
“Okay,” I said, “Would you recommend a nearby restaurant?”
Three times I asked. Three times he insisted, “No, no, no, the restaurant will take care of you.”
He made a phone call. Then he directed me back to the restaurant. This time, I was met at the door by the maître d’ in a suit and two waiters, both wearing white dinner jackets. (I was wearing a down vest and khakis.)
They seated me. The room is huge, white marble floors, pale blue lamps. It appeared to be set for a wedding reception. Roses on the table.
Again, the language barrier. The waiter apologized for the limited menu offerings due to the season.
ME. Let’s make this easy. Just tell me what you have available.
MAÎTRE D’. Spaghetti?
ME. Si. Spaghetti is fine.
MAÎTRE D’. Pomodoro?
ME. Si, pomodoro.
MAÎTRE D’. Beef?
And we were done. Spaghetti with tomato sauce, a small steak, salad, bread and wine. I ate this three-course meal in silence in an otherwise empty room. The waiters hovered over me throughout. Lots of grazies and pregos. The food was exceptional. Apparently, five stars means they take care of you.
Temples, not ruins
According to mythology, Jason and the Argonauts founded Paestum around 600 BCE. The Greek colonists called it Poseidonia, after the god of the sea. The Lucans changed it to Paistom and the Romans to Paestum in 273 BCE.
“And what are your plans today?” the hotel manager asked.
“I am touring the ruins,” I said.
“You will enjoy touring the temples,” he corrected me.
Temples, not ruins. I see their point–the temples are in pretty good shape for being twenty-five-hundred years old.
On the way into the site, I passed the souvenir stand where I had sought help the evening before. The son was quite excited to see me. A big smile and a hand clasp. The father tried to convince me to buy a guidebook.
The archaeological site is compact, featuring the three temples, surrounded by the ruins of a Roman town within a huge stone Roman wall. The temples were initially thought to be dedicated to the Greek deities Hera, Athena and Poseidon (Juno, Minerva and Neptune to the Romans), although today they have been re-identified as Athena, Hera and Hera. Hera is the wife of Zeus.
At the highest point, away from the others, is the Temple of Athena. It was built around 500 BCE. The First Temple of Hera was built around 600 BCE and the Second around 450 BCE. They are stunning to see, much bigger than I expected.
The Roman city walls, amphitheater and paved road are largely intact, as well as the foundations of many shops and houses. Only about 20 percent of Paestum has been excavated due to the lack of funding.
After touring the archaeology museum, I relaxed in the infinity whirlpool on the sundeck at the hotel. By myself. Staying alone in a five-star resort hotel is one of the strangest experiences I’ve had during my travels, at once both funny and creepy.
There are no streets in Positano. The main road to the town clings high to the sides of the mountains, never daring to get closer. From there, the buildings seem to tumble downhill toward the pebbly beach. The only access to the homes and shops below is through a series of steep narrow stone steps.
After checking into my hotel, I headed downtown. And I mean down town. I counted the steps. The stairways zigged and zagged between homes, suddenly revealing hidden patios or views of the sea. The church emerged and then, finally, the beach.
The count: 433 steps from hotel to beach. Each way–433 up and 433 down.
In the days that followed I would make this climb both directions two or three times a day.
Positano was a poor fishing village in the early 1900s. After World War II large numbers of tourists arrived. In the 1960s the town’s colorful resort clothing set international fashion trends. Today, its alleys are still lined with boutiques. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote “Midnight Rambler” while vacationing in Positano.
Up and down the steps. I visited the green-and-yellow-domed Church of Santa Maria Assunta to see the Black Madonna, a Byzantine painting from the 1200s CE. According to legend, the icon had been stolen and was being transported by pirates across the Mediterranean Sea. A storm threatened the ship. The rattled sailors heard a voice on board say, “Posa! Posa!” (Put down! Put down!) They unloaded the Black Madonna at Positano, where it remains today.
Took me a while to figure out that C on the faucet means hot, not cold, and F means cold, not hot. Caldo and freddo. Up and down the steps. I found the trail to Fornillo Beach, the locals’ hideaway from the tourists. The beach is strewn with sherds of glazed clay.
In town, wisteria shades the passageways. Sunbathers lie on the pebbles. Water laps at the concrete dock, where a woman fishes with two handlines, repeatedly casting and jigging lures. Feral cats wait outside the seafood shop for scraps. From the beach, the pastel houses look to be stacked precariously on top of each other, like Jenga. The cafés fire up propane heaters in the evenings.
Lots of bell ringing on Palm Sunday. I watched the procession into church, most carrying fresh-cut olive boughs decorated with ribbons, flowers, candies and cheese. An Easter basket on a branch. The cheese is caciocavallo, a stretched-curd variety, like string cheese but shaped like a big drop of water. Afterward, families, with olive branches in hand, poured out of church and crowded the restaurants for espresso and pastries.
I joined a small group tour of Amalfi and Ravello, conducted by guide Vincenzo. He maneuvered our van along the precipitous road, squeezing through impossibly narrow passages. A white-knuckle drive, as cars tucked their sideview mirrors and wiggled past. We stopped in each town for a couple of hours to explore.
Amalfi lies within a deep ravine, surrounded by dramatic cliffs. We passed a herd of donkeys wearing panniers made of aluminum boxes, carrying construction materials up and down the mountains. A herd of sheep moved from terrace to terrace. Vincenzo pointed out Sophia Loren’s summer home. She grew up in nearby Pozzuoli.
In Amalfi I visited the gaudy Cathedral of Saint Andrew with its Cloister of Paradise and basilica full of treasures. In the frescoed Crypt of St. Andrew are some of his remains, “rescued” from Constantinople in 1206 during the Fourth Crusade. Sixty-two wide steps lead up to the cathedral’s huge bronze doors. In front, a fashion shoot was underway.
The road between Amalfi and Ravello is ridiculously twisting and narrow. Finally, Vincenzo, a skilled driver, scraped a side mirror against the cliff wall as another vehicle was passing. He didn’t seem concerned. It must happen frequently. More than half of the vehicles in the area appear to have been sideswiped.
Ravello is small and quiet, compared to the other towns, with a high open square lined with cafés. I toured Villa Rufolo, dating to the 1200s CE, with its stunning views of the coast from its garden. The German opera composer Richard Wagner visited the villa in 1880. He was so impressed with its beauty that every year the villa hosts a Wagnerian opera.
Ravello was the setting for the movie Beat The Devil (1953), featuring Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida and Peter Lorre. The village remembers them fondly, along with director John Huston and screenwriter Truman Capote, for their all-night parties during filming.
Walking the plank
Capri has been a hideaway for the rich and famous as well as the not-so rich and not-so famous since ancient times. Even Roman emporers escaped to the island for extended stays. Capri was often attacked and occupied by Turkish pirates. Napoleon’s troops captured it in 1806. Then the British. Then the French again. In 1815 it fell to Naples.
Since then, the island has attracted artists, writers, movie stars and other celebrities, including Oscar Wilde, D.H. Lawrence, Vladimir Lenin, Clark Gable, Brigitte Bardot and Jackie Onassis. Mariah Carey owns a villa on the island. Its population is thirteen-thousand, not counting the tens of thousands of tourists.
I visited twice, first on the good ship Frateli Aprea, captained by jolly Andrea, out of Sorrento. And second on the regular ferry from Positano.
Before the crossing, Captain Andrea cruised us by the ancient Roman villa ruins on the stony Sorrentine Peninsula. Fishermen angled from the rocks.
The trip across was rough, the sea swaying the boat violently. No Sirens though. Andrea steered us perilously close to the cliff walls of the island so that we could examine Grotta Bianca (White Grotto) and Grotta Meravigliosa (Green Grotto). We marveled at the homes of the wealthy perched high on the cliffs overhead.
At Faraglioni (the sea stacks), Andrea maneuvered us under the famous arch. We passed the pink lighthouse at Faro Punta Carena. Unfortunately, the water was too high to enter Grotta Azzura (the Blue Grotto). None of the rowboat pilots were on duty. We disembarked at Marina Grande.
I boarded the tiny shuttle bus to Anacapri, standing room only. The views over the cliffs were breathtaking, especially from the hairpin turns. Unfortunately the chair lift to Monte Solaro was not yet open for the season. Instead, I walked to the overlook near Villa San Michele for the incredible view over Capri Town.
I visited Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo (Church of St. Michael the Archangel). Built in 1719, it is octagonal in shape. The church’s floor has been cleared to allow for viewing its elaborate tiled image of the Garden of Eden. An angel with a sword chases Adam and Eve from Paradise while all of the the animals of the world look on bemused. Even a unicorn!
On my second visit I caught the early ferry from Positano. I was the only one who boarded the boat, already full of daytrippers from Amalfi and Salerno. Upon landing, I made a beeline for the shuttle to Anicapri. This time, the chair lift to nineteen-hundred-feet Monte Solaro was open. An exhilarating ride straight up over terraced groves, feet dangling.
The view from the top is spectacular, 360 degrees over Capri and the Faraglioni rocks. I hiked down the steep trail to Anacapri.
The ferry ride back to Positano was bouncy, the wind picking up. Along the coast deserted watchtowers still stand guard. Sea caves invite exploration. The wind blew white wood smoke from the vineyards sideways.
At the dock in Positano I was again the only departee. The crew executed a “drive-by disembarking,” lowering the gangplank but never mooring. I dashed across and jumped to the dock. The crew laughed and so did I, although the maneuver seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen.
I chose not to climb the 433 stairs to the hotel only to climb down again for dinner and then back up again afterward. So, an early dinner, pasta with mussels.
At the end the waiter brought me a complimentary limoncello.
“It is for the steps,” he said.